In most cases (to be true: in most cases that I know) Ecumenical services are designed in the following way: Ministers from different denominations meet at a negotiating table. They come to mutual agreements on Scripture readings, hymns, intercessory prayer, the Lord’s prayer, maybe they write new prayers. A preacher is chosen, and eventually, all the necessary offices in the liturgy are shared among the ministers. Done! The result is a newly created service consisting of elements that everyone can agree too. It is a “least-common-denominator-”service.
My experience with such Ecumenical services is the following: Although the preparation is very complex and takes a long time, the services lack spiritual depth (aside from joyful exceptions of course). Why? Because a “least-common-denominator”-service neither offers the full treasure of my own liturgical tradition nor the full treasures of other denominations.
I think that many Catholics do not know that the “Ecumenical Directory” from 1993 – the fundamental law for Catholic participation in Ecumenism – offers a second type of Ecumenical service. The ED says in articles 116–119:
Sharing in Non-Sacramental Liturgical Worship
116. By liturgical worship is meant worship carried out according to books, prescriptions and customs of a Church or ecclesial Community, presided over by a minister or delegate of that Church or Community. This liturgical worship may be of a non-sacramental kind, or may be the celebration of one or more of the Christian sacraments. The concern here is non-sacramental worship.
117. In some situations, the official prayer of a Church may be preferred to ecumenical services specially prepared for the occasion. Participation in such celebrations as Morning or Evening Prayer, special vigils, etc., will enable people of different liturgical traditions—Catholic, Eastern, Anglican and Protestant—to understand each other’s community prayer better and to share more deeply in traditions which often have developed from common roots.
118. In liturgical celebrations taking place in other Churches and ecclesial Communities, Catholics are encouraged to take part in the psalms, responses, hymns and common actions of the Church in which they are guests. If invited by their hosts, they may read a lesson or preach.
119. Regarding assistance at liturgical worship of this type, there should be a meticulous regard for the sensibilities of the clergy and people of all the Christian Communities concerned, as well as for local customs which may vary according to time, place, persons and circumstances. In a Catholic liturgical celebration, ministers of other Churches and ecclesial Communities may have the place and liturgical honors proper to their rank and their role, if this is judged desirable. Catholic clergy invited to be present at a celebration of another Church or ecclesial Community may wear the appropriate dress or insignia of their ecclesiastical office, if it is agreeable to their hosts.
The final sentence is the crucial point: “share more deeply in traditions which often have developed from common roots”. How should Ecumenical services be fruitful if we disguise our own liturgical treasure to others, if the others disguise their liturgical treasures to us, and if we limit ourselves to ritual elements that we know already anyway – or create new ones that belong to neither of the different traditions?
When I meet other denominations, I want to learn something new. But this requires place and space for the strangers and the strange. Hence, I prefer to visit other denominations’ services over creating new services in a joint effort.
Here in Innsbruck, we managed to install an annual Ecumenical service of that type during the “Season of Creation” in September/October: One of the denominations – so far this have been the Lutherans, Serbian Orthodox, and Roman Catholics – invites the others to join a denominational service. No Eucharist, but a Liturgy of the Word, Vespers, or something else. The hosting church decides what parts of the liturgy can be taken over by the guests: For example, a Catholic cantor sings the opening psalm in the Orthodox Vespers, or a Lutheran pastor reads the Concluding Prayer in the Catholic Vespers, or the Catholic bishop preaches in the Lutheran church. If the hosting church does not want to assign any part of the liturgy to any of the guests, this is fine as well.
Sometimes people regard this type of celebration as an Ecumenical regression. Indeed in such services, not all denominations are equal. But in my eyes, Ecumenism is not about conformity on the lowest possible level. It should rather have to do with sharing spiritual and liturgical treasures. The little-known type of Ecumenical liturgical experience according to ED 116–119 is a helpful option for that aim, and I think it should be used much more often.